Bears

Barring surprise contract, Alshon Jeffery faces another prove-it year with Bears

Barring surprise contract, Alshon Jeffery faces another prove-it year with Bears

Alshon Jeffery didn’t necessarily mean it to be prophetic, but events have given his words a decidedly deeper significance:

"I’ll let my game take care of itself," Jeffery said last month as the Bears were concluding their pre-camp offseason. Jeffery is on course for precisely that spot of needing his game to take care of itself, and him. Because he and it didn’t get that done the first time.

Barring a surprise breakthrough before the 3 p.m. Friday deadline in stalled negotiations, Jeffery will play 2016 under the Bears franchise tag and for its guaranteed $14.6 million for one season. If no deal is concluded, the two sides are enjoined by rule from negotiating again until January.

The effect of no contract and the franchise tag is to make 2016 a prove-it season for Jeffery in advance of the 2017 offseason and possible free agency. But the 2015 season was in fact also a prove-it year for Jeffery, and he did not, at least not to the degree he needed to remove all doubt about his physical durability. Jeffery missed time in training camp and then three different times during the regular season with an assortment of different soft-tissue injuries.

Jeffery missed seven games entirely and portions of two others last season, not the sort of prove-it season he or the Bears wanted after he’d played all 16 games the previous two years.

Of course, “surprise” should not be ruled out in this situation: Both Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas reached deals calling for $70 million over five seasons with Dallas and Denver, respectively, and reached those deals last July 15 amid after scattered reports that no deals were happening.

But the Bears were not expected to proffer a deal with more than $40 million guaranteed – which Bryant and Thomas received – for a player who had lined up on less than 47 percent of their 2015 snaps. Accordingly, a no-deal for Jeffery has been expected for some time.

When general manager Ryan Pace was asked last February during the NFL Scouting Combine about the state of business between the Bears and Jeffery, Pace’s tone was positive, that the team was “aggressively” negotiating toward a long-term contract for the wide receiver who already ranks 10th in franchise history in receptions (252) and seventh in receiving yards (3,728) in less than four full seasons in a Bears uniform.

A week later, however, the Bears were compelled to place their franchise tag on Jeffery to block his entry into unrestricted free agency.

Pace’s optimism continued to decline by the time the draft arrived in late April, by noting that “not a lot of new information” was coming out of talks. Jeffery’s absence from voluntary team activities throughout the offseason served only to underscore the gap.

Even without practicing, Allen Robinson is making a strong first impression with the Bears

Even without practicing, Allen Robinson is making a strong first impression with the Bears

Before Bears wide receivers coach Mike Furrey met with the media on Wednesday, Allen Robinson was curious what his position coach would say about him in public. 

“I just told him, I don’t know you,” Furrey quipped. “Who’s Allen Robinson?”

Furrey, of course, knows who Robinson is. But the point behind that joke is that Furrey, the Bears’ court wide receivers coach in four years, is still getting to know all of his receivers — let alone the one who hasn’t participated in a practice yet. For all the positivity that's easy to find around Halas Hall these days, the Bears' biggest offseason acquisition hasn't taken a rep yet. 

The good news for the Bears, of course, is that Robinson’s past play speaks for itself. He combined for 153 catches, 2,883 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2015 and 2016, and has been adamant he’ll return to that high level of play when he’s cleared to practice. The Bears were confident enough in Robinson’s medicals to guarantee him a little over $25 million in March, per Spotrac, about a month before they let Cameron Meredith sign with the New Orleans Saints largely over medical concerns (Meredith’s torn ACL was viewed as more serious than Robinson’s, in short). 

So the getting-to-know-you phase for Furrey and Robinson is largely taking place off the field in the meeting rooms of Halas Hall. 

“What a great young man,” Furrey said. “He’s come in here, obviously, rehabbing and doing all those things. But he’s alert, he comes to meetings, he’s ready to go. Really, really smart, you can tell that from the beginning and he’s a professional.”

What Furrey, in particular, likes about Robinson is that he’s an “alpha,” but is far more than all talk and no action. 

“And a lot of times that alpha talks a lot and they don’t really put it out there,” Furrey said. “He kind of has that alpha quietness to him. He understands what’s going on, you can look at him and you just kind of get that feel of he has a great understanding of how to approach this game at this level. Obviously he’s been highly successful for a couple years with some big numbers, but he doesn’t act like that. He’s still hungry, he wants to learn, and I think he’s got a chip on his shoulder, which is a good trait to have too. So we’re excited about that.”

The expectation all along has been for Robinson to be cleared to fully participate in training camp practices. So while coach Matt Nagy said last week Robinson is “ahead of the game,” that may not mean he takes part in the final round of OTAs next week or veteran minicamp the first week of June. 

But while Robinson can’t prove himself to his new coaches on the field yet, he’s doing the right things off the field to make a positive first impression. 

“He knows you gotta come in early, he knows you gotta be the last one to leave, he knows you gotta study,” Furrey said. “It doesn’t matter five years in, six years in, you gotta take notes. It doesn’t matter if you hear it 10 times, you just gotta keep taking notes. He’s been really good at that, and I’ve been really impressed with that. I’ve been able to get on the field with him a little bit, just kind of throwing some balls to him, and I didn’t know he was that big. But obviously we’re excited for it to happen out there.” 

Protection Issues: Bears O-line ranked 21st in NFL

Protection Issues: Bears O-line ranked 21st in NFL

Mitch Trubisky has been set up for a huge season in 2018 with all the firepower the Chicago Bears added on offense. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Trey Burton will give the second-year quarterback a variety of explosive targets to generate points in bunches.

None of the headline-grabbing moves will matter, however, if the offensive line doesn't do its job. 

According to Numberfire.com, the Bears' starting five could be the offense's Achilles heel. They were ranked 21st in the NFL and described as poor in pass protection.

Last year, the Bears ranked 26th in Sack NEP per drop back and 23rd in sack rate. These issues were especially apparent after Trubisky took over. In the games that [Kyle] Long played, their sack rate was 8.2%. It was actually 7.2% in the games that he missed. They struggled even when Long was healthy.

The Bears added Iowa's James Daniels in the second round of April's draft and he's expected to start at guard alongside Long. Cody Whitehair will resume his role as the starting center, with Charles Leno, Jr. and Bobby Massie at offensive tackle.

If Long comes back healthy and Daniels lives up to his draft cost, they should be a good run-blocking team from the jump. But Long has played just 18 games the past two years and is entering his age-30 season, so that's far from a lock. On top of that, the pass blocking was suspect last year and remains a mystery entering 2018.

The biggest addition to the offensive line is Harry Hiestand, the accomplished position coach who returns to Chicago after once serving in the same role under Lovie Smith from 2005-2009. He most recently coached at Notre Dame and helped develop multiple first-round picks. He's going to have a huge impact.

The good news for the Bears is they weren't the lowest-ranked offensive line in the NFC North. The Vikings came in at No. 25. The Packers checked-in at No. 13, while the Lions were 16th.